Swimming with Oslob Whale Sharks

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Swimming with whale sharks, a divers dream. These gentle giants grow up to 12 meters (40 feet) in length and are considered the largest fish in the ocean. Whale sharks are filter feeders, having a diet of plankton and krill. Whale sharks are migratory fish meaning they travel from place to place following the warm waters. Their spots near their fins act as a unique fingerprint and each can be identified. There are currently over 450 identified whale sharks in the Philippines.

Article by Robyn Hartzell 

There is a lot of controversy about swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob. Many divers refuse to swim with them in Oslob because they feel the conditions are unfair. I originally wasn’t going to go, but after talking to some local and expat dive shops and hearing their take, I decided to check it out and experience it myself and try to keep an open mind while I was there.

Swimming with Oslob Whale Sharks underwater

 

Shark Finning in the Philippines

Before this tiny town became a popular area to swim with the whale sharks, they were being harvested and their fins sold for income. Shark finning is illegal in the Philippines now, but it wasn’t for some time, and the whale shark populations were dwindling. The act of shark finning is when a fisherman catches a shark then slices of its fins and drops the rest of the body, alive, into the water to die. The sharks aren’t used for their full body meat, just the fins. Shark Fin Soup is very popular in Asia and the fins fetch a high dollar ticket when exported out. Many chefs, like Gordon Ramsey, have promoted not putting fins in shark fin soup as they don’t taste like anything and have just become this commodity that has drove demand over the years.

Swimming with Oslob Whale Sharks underwater

 

The start of swimming with whale sharks in Oslob

Local fishermen use shrimp as bait to catch fish, and the whale sharks were drawn to the shrimp and stuck around the boats. A local dive shop owner encouraged the fishermen not to fin them, but to bring them into the bay by feeding them krill where they could share them with the community and tourists alike. The small town of Oslob went from not being able to send their children to school and living in shacks with no bathrooms to now where children are educated, and families live in homes with plumbing and electric. If it weren’t for the sharks, this small town would still be struggling.

I talked to a UK owned shop about the whale sharks to get their take on it. His shop didn’t support it for years, in an effort to do their part in helping to put an end to it. He realized that divers were just going to other shops when his shop refused to go. His shop now offers dive trips to Oslob again, but his staff gives a thorough briefing along with educating his guests about the whale sharks and Oslob’s history with them.

Swimming with Oslob Whale Sharks underwater

My experience snorkeling with whale sharks in Oslob

My first impression upon arriving in Oslob was that it wasn’t so bad, organization wise. Once there you head to the window to get your ticket: snorkeling is 1000 pesos ($20), and diving is 1500 Pesos ($30). After getting your ticket and number, you head off to another area to listen to a briefing on the do’s and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks. I like that they have a briefing, but not everyone attends nor does everyone listen to what they are saying. The briefer did hit all the major points: stay at least 6m away from the whale sharks, don’t use sunscreen, and no swimming off from the boat to chase after them.

Once the briefing was over, I waited for my number to be called then headed out to the boats. The boats are regulated, and there weren’t more than 20 boats out at a time when I went. The boats were also all daisy chained up in a line, so there was some organized fashion with the boats, they’re not just a free for all in the Bay. Once chained up to your neighboring boat, you’re allowed to get in the water, staying next to the boat to wait for the whale sharks to pass you. You have 20-30 minutes with the whale sharks.

Here’s where the mixed emotion comes in. There are a few smaller boats in the water with a single fisherman on each, and he is hand-feeding the whale sharks buckets of krill. There tends to be one to two whale sharks per boat, and they just follow the boat up and down the path of the tourists, feeding on the krill.  In my eyes, this is not really an authentic experience. The whale sharks aren’t concerned about anything other than getting fed by the fishermen.

Swimming with Oslob Whale Sharks underwater

 

Why feeding the whale sharks in Oslob is hurting them

What I first noticed is none of the boats have propellers which is great, the whales won’t get chewed up by coming in contact with them, but what I witnessed is the whale sharks still had scrapes and cuts on them. The theory is because these fish are used to being fed, they are going up to any boat once they are outside the bay thinking they’re going to be fed and are getting hit with the boat propellers.

Feeding the whale sharks is also breaking their migratory patterns. A local dive shop said that it’s the smaller whale sharks that stay in the bay and only for a few years then head off, but there’s not much data proving this.

Swimming with Oslob Whale Sharks underwater

 

Final thoughts on swimming with the Whale Sharks in Oslob

I was surprised to see there were more local tourists here than foreign tourists. I feel it’s a great way for the locals to see what’s in their waters and learn how to protect them and why they’re so important. Still, I felt like I was at Disneyland. Many guests were screaming like they were on a wild ride. Most of the people in the boat, once in the water, were kicking and screaming when the whale sharks got close, and some even kicked them.

I honestly only spent about 10 minutes in the water with them. Absorbing what was going on around me, I took a bunch of pictures, yelled at a few tourists on my boat who were getting too close and generally just freaking out, and then got out.  I don’t know if paying the extra money to dive with them would have been any different.

As a dive professional, this is not the way to see these beautiful creatures. When you see one of these beauties in the wild, it’s like you were given a gift, but going to a place like Oslob where you know you’re guaranteed to see them, it takes the magic away from seeing them in their true environment. This was my first time seeing them and now more than ever, I want to see them when it’s not a guarantee, but when one randomly shows up on one of my dives. That will be an experience of a lifetime and one to remember and cherish.

robyn around the world logo

Robyn is a professional photographer and PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor traveling the world since 2015. As a full time traveler her passion is to capture the beauty of everything she sees on land and under the sea and share it with the world.  

robynhartzellphotography.com
robyn@robynaroundtheworld.com


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